Twenty-five years ago this summer, the pioneering community organizer Saul Alinsky died. But like one of his heroes, Tom Paine, who also believed in the radical American idea that democracy is for ordinary people, Alinsky’s spirit and importance live on. For me, that’s no small comfort amid the decay of democracy, where voters are vanishing, the special-interest money pours in and the president’s bridge to the 21st century leads to the end of the inheritance tax as we know it.
In recent years, there has been a flood of books lamenting our skewed politics and frayed civil society. When I pick one up, I flip to the index to see if “Alinsky” appears. In the best of the lot, he does. Alinsky is “an important model for contemporary citizen politics,” William Greider wrote five years ago in his best-selling and gloomy account of the betrayal of American democracy, “Who Will Tell the People?” And last year, in “Democracy’s Discontent,” Michael Sandel cited Alinsky and his successors at the Industrial Areas Foundation as representing “one of the most promising expressions” of civic participation and noted that, through a national network of community-based organizations, Alinsky’s direct descendants are “teach(ing) residents of poor communities how to engage in effective political activity.”
The scale of the IAF’s work today - there are some 50 church-based, interfaith and interracial organizations stretching from East Brooklyn to East Los Angeles - is steadily approaching Alinsky’s dream of a large network of “Peoples’ Organizations” that would provide tens of thousands of ordinary working and modest-income Americans with a measure of power to shape decisions that affect their lives and communities.
In the 1940s, Alinsky organized the basic model in the Jungle, the old Chicago stockyards neighborhood made famous in Upton Sinclair’s classic muckraking work. There, he recruited and guided local leaders who identified common interests that brought together previously hostile ethnic Serbs and Croatians, Czechs and Slovaks, Poles and Lithuanians into a large organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. The council, like the handful of other large-scale groups Alinsky organized in predominantly black communities in the 1950s and ‘60s, was in part a pressure group, demanding and negotiating with public and private sector institutions on bread-and-butter issues like better schools and more jobs, and in part a self-help operation that established credit unions, built or rehabilitated housing, and provided social services.
As important as these functions were, the greater significance of Alinsky’s voluntary community organizations is that they provided a connection between the individual and the larger society. Alinsky’s experiment was important, the social critic Daniel Bell wrote in 1945 in his review of Alinsky’s book, “Reveille for Radicals,” because it “attempts to give people a sense of participation and belonging (and) becomes important as a weapon against cynicism and despair.” A real democracy cannot long endure when half of the people no longer vote and in most every other way have dropped out of the democratic process.
But when the opposite occurs, one is afforded a glimpse of the wonderful possibilities of citizenship through collective action. Such was the case in May at a church meeting in Baltimore at which Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced that he would issue an executive order barring employers from hiring taxpayer-subsidized welfare recipients to replace workers already on the job. When he signed the order, Maryland became the first state to act on the controversial “worker displacement” issue. Glendening, who faces a tough re-election challenge next year, made his announcement at a church filled with 300 black, white and Latino representatives of the IAF’s three large Maryland-based community organizations. “It doesn’t do any of us any good to talk about declining welfare rolls if we are forcing other people into unemployment,” the governor said. “Our intention is to state very clearly: It’s illegal … and it’s immoral.”
The fact that a politician can discern morality a lot faster in a roomful of registered voters has little to do with cynicism but says much about how the democratic process works - and has always worked - in our country.
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